Six candidates — only one of whom is an incumbent — will run for election to the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education this November. Five people are vying for three full-term (3-year) open seats, while one incumbent will run to complete the remainder of the term she assumed after a sitting board member stepped down in January.
None of the three board members whose full terms end this year — Elizabeth Baker, Tony Mazzocchi, Robin Baker — are running for reelection.
As of the Monday afternoon deadline to file petitions with the Essex County Clerk’s Office, the following candidates have filed:
- Susan Lewis Bergin, Maplewood
- Courtney Winkfield, South Orange
(Bergin and Winkfield are running together on the “Collaborate, Belong, Thrive” platform.)
- Melanie Finnern, South Orange: “Parent for Progress”
- Elissa Malespina, South Orange: “Choice for Change”
- Deborah Engel, Maplewood
- Kamaljit (Kamal) Zubieta, Maplewood: “For All Children”
The Board consists of nine members who serve three-year terms, with three members of the Board subject to election each year. Read more about the BOE here. The general election is November 3, 2020, and newly elected board members will begin their terms in January, 2021.
Zubieta, who was appointed as interim after Javier Farfan resigned in January, had told Village Green on Sunday she was not planning to run in the fall, but then changed her mind. “I did decide to file for the one-year term,” Zubieta said on Monday afternoon. “As an interim member of the board, I had to acclimate very quickly. Now that I have moved up the learning curve, I feel well-equipped to take on another year. I am excited for the opportunity to serve all children in our district.”
Robin Baker had initially said she planned to run for the completion of Farfan’s term; however, she said she ultimately decided not to file.
The Board of Education has a great deal on its plate for the fall and the next few years.
It will need to manage the implementation of an ambitious $160+ long-range facilities/capital improvement plan and a concurrent integration plan, the specifics of which are not yet fully known. The district just settled a long-running lawsuit that alleged it has not addressed racial and other inequities in its curriculum and instruction, leveling and discipline policies, and agreed to have its integration plan and programs monitored by a retired NJ Supreme Court Justice.
The district has been working to bring its curriculum up to date and in compliance with state standards, and the administration recently discussed steps needed to address shortcomings with student performance, school climate and culture, and teacher/staff development.
Supt. Dr. Ronald Taylor has been on the job for just over a year, and was hired after years of administrative churn in the district. Columbia High School has a brand new principal. Two assistant superintendent positions that have long been vacant have yet to be filled.
All of this is playing out against the backdrop of embarking on a new school year under the unprecedented shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced the district to shut down its physical buildings and quickly pivot to distance learning in the spring — a process that did not always go smoothly.
Indeed, just six weeks before the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, the district has not yet released its final reopening plan, although Taylor has said the plan will be finalized in early August and has continued to update the community as he and the administration develop guidelines with input from various stakeholders. Meanwhile, teachers’ unions, including SOMEA, have expressed concerns about whether schools can safely reopen at all.
As we head toward the election, Village Green will continue to post candidate statements and information and cover (virtual) candidate forums and events. We also welcome Letters to the Editor, which can be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org.